Now here’s an argument I haven’t heard before: Improving your instruction makes it easier for students to learn. If it’s easier for them to learn, they won’t work as hard in the course, and that means they could learn less. It’s called offsetting behavior and we can’t ask students about it directly because it would be disingenuous for them to admit to studying less when learning becomes easier.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
During the past year and a half, our faculty development unit has been gathering data from students about how engaged they felt in their online courses. We wanted to use this data to develop a variety of strategies for faculty to use to better engage their students. Research provides evidence for the connection between higher student engagement and persistence and retention in online programs (Boston, et al., 2010; Wyatt, 2011). Encouraging student engagement is especially important in the online environment where attrition rates are higher than in the face-to-face setting (Allen & Seaman, 2015; Boston & Ice, 2011).
If you read the syllabus of an Introduction to Sociology course, you’ll notice we have ambitious goals for our students. We not only want our students to understand sociological theories, we want them to use these theories to meaningfully analyze their everyday experiences, interactions, and observations and draw greater meaning from them. How can we encourage this type of engagement in an introductory sociology class? I have realized that the key is by guiding students to think innovatively through a self-directed research project where the students are the drivers of their learning process.
Most of us think we know what active learning is. The word engagement quickly comes to mind. Or, we describe what it isn’t: passive learning. Definitions also abound. The one proposed by Bonwell and Eison in an early (and now classic) active learning monograph is widely referenced: involving “students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing.” (p. 2)
Effort and habit are instrumental to learning and writing, but they are often dimly lit in our grading systems. That light needs to brighten with the help of new research and popular literature that highlight how essential habit, effort, and perseverance are to learning. I’ve used an effort-aware grading system in my teaching for some time now, a B-grading contract that locks hardworking students into a minimum final grade of B. For grades rising above B, the quality of the writing is the focus (the product), but only for students who fulfill the contract (the process).
I continue to be impressed by the need for teachers to clarify common aspects of instruction instead of assuming that students’ understanding of what they entail are the same as ours. Participation is a good example. How often is it defined in the course syllabus? How often is it characterized beyond the basics when it’s discussed at the beginning of the course or at different times throughout the semester? We do probably agree on the essentials—questions, answers, and comments—but much more than that is needed if classroom interaction is to realize its potential as a student engagement strategy. Here’s an example of the degree of clarification I think we should be after:
Our teaching persona is expressed in how we go about shaping the learning environment. A purposeful integration of our teaching persona helps link students with content in subtle ways. This matters because we’re after an expression of teaching persona that plays a constructive role in creating a learning environment where learners thrive and teachers flourish.
During a conversation about evidence-based teaching, a faculty member piped up with some enthusiasm and just a bit of pride, “I’m using an evidence-based strategy.” He described a rather unique testing structure and concluded, “There’s a study that found it significantly raised exam scores.” He shared the reference with me afterward and it’s a solid study—not exceptional, but good.
English teachers know a few things about managing the paper load. But managing isn’t leading. We should do more than manage the load; we should lead our students through the writing process (invention, drafting, and revising) to help them become independent thinkers who can effectively present their ideas to an audience.